On the dawn of the new day in downtown Hiroshima, I slowly stirred. My sleep had been continuous and uninterrupted and I was feeling much better, although my lower digestive half was still not completely happy. Nevertheless, I was determined to see as much as my body would allow, most notably the numerous monuments to the bomb that had virtually wiped out all trace of the city on August 6th, 1945.
Hiroshima is a city of regrowth, and if you leave aside for a moment the aforementioned statues and monuments and reminders you see a city that is much like any other in Japan. High-rise buildings, MacDonalds, Subways and Burger Kings, great public transport through the typical bustle, parks to take a quiet moment, and a general workaday contentment amongst the population. It is however also a city of great dignity; Hiroshima could have made millions off the back of its status (alongside Nagasaki) as one of the few inhabited areas of a nuclear detonation on the planet, but instead has a very muted, respectful remembrance of what went before and those who died.
It would be a place that allowed me, quite fittingly to start anew. My bowels were still doing a passable impersonation of a washing machine and they were giving off warning signals not to stray too far from a toilet, but I was alert and refreshed and the fever that had hung over for the past few nights had gone on the refreshing breeze coming from the window.
I took the tram about 9am back into the centre of the city and the Hondōri shopping arcade, I had walked gingerly through the night before. Sniffing western food, I stopped in the local Andersen, a posh-looking but rather cramped cafeteria selling savoury foods and ice creams on the ground floor of one of the department stores. Loading up on a bacon and egg muffin with strawberry ice cream to finish (I couldn't taste any of it but I put this down to my general health at the time rather than the quality).
All caloried up, I pushed on through the arcade in the direction my trusty book was telling me and sure enough, the slightly cramping buildings dropped away, replaced by the open sky. I was at the centrepiece of Hiroshima, the peace exhibits. Located on the tip of land created where the Ota-gawa river splits into the Honkawa and the Motoyasu-gawa, the memorial site consists of several buildings interspersed with a number of memorials. The site was chosen because it is near enough directly underneath the blast point of the bomb, which detonated a nearly 2000 feet from the ground for maximum effect, its target being the T-shaped Aioi Bridge that links the island to each side of the Ota-gawa.
The first thing you notice before crossing the beautiful Motoyatsu bridge onto the grounds is the A-Bomb Dome. Perhaps the most recognisable structure in Hiroshima, it was one of perhaps a dozen buildings that withstood the blast of the bomb to any significant degree. This was mainly because the building, which at the time was known as the 'Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall' is almost directly below the blast point, meaning that although the outer skin of the building was atomised, the walls took the weight of the blast and stayed mostly upright, its skeletal domed top becoming a symbol of the devastation.
As the mammoth clearing up job took place over the following years, the dome remained largely untouched, which resulted in divided opinions. There were those who would demolish it as it served as a constant reminder of the day, while others wanted it kept for much the same reasons. In the end, favour swung towards keeping it as a symbol, but not before its internal structure had been reinforced with girders, since the elements over the intervening years took their toll and it was in danger of collapsing.
After spending a little time at the dome, I turned back and crossed the bridge, and came across the Memorial Tower to the Mobilized Students. This monument was erected in the late 60's as an act of remembrance for the students who were drafted into Hiroshima during the late stages of the war. Their role, ironically, was to help demolish as many of the buildings in Hiroshima as possible before the allied fleet came along with (what was thought to be) standard bombing raids and flattened the buildings themselves. At least this way the buildings could be demolished safely with no loss of life. Unfortunately, a great deal of the students who were conscripted for the work were killed. The memorial has four plaques around its base featuring images of the students at work, and a constantly-replenished stream of garlands of multicoloured paper cranes, made by children from around the world and shipped to Hiroshima. The paper crane symbol, prevalent throughout Hiroshima from the moment I had arrived was explained when I reached the nearby Childrens Peace Monument.
The monument was erected in 1958 and is in remembrance of all the children who died, but in particular tells the story of Sadako Sasaki, a two-year-old girl at the time of the bombing, contracted leukaemia years afterwards with the radiation exposure. Echoing the elements of an old Japanese proverb, she became convinced that if she were able to fold a thousand paper cranes she would be cured of her illness. In 1955, after folding more than a thousand with the help of her classmates, she eventually succumbed to the illness, but her story had gained national recognition and her classmates were able to have the monument built three years later. The ever repeating death and replenishment of the paper cranes became a theme for Hiroshima as a whole. A statue of Sadako stands on top of the monument holding aloft a paper crane, and the peace bell underneath the monument has a golden crane attached to its rope.
Beyond the two monuments, but before the main memorial area is a small park, filled with pine trees and bark chipped areas containing many smaller monuments and quite a few park benches, which was handy when you had to sit down and take it all in. One of the smaller monuments had only recently been brought within the grounds of the memorial site. Much like the students who were drafted in, many Koreans died at the bombing; (it is estimated that 10% of the 200,000 killed on or after the bomb were Koreans who had been drafted in as soldiers or volunteers, or were simply residents of Hiroshima at the time). For many years these people were not recognised and it wasn't until 1970 that a monument was erected to honour both the dead and the survivors, although it was originally only allowed outside the grounds of the peace park. Common sense finally won through in 1999 and the monument was moved inside the grounds.
After a little while on the northern tip of the park, I crossed over the road carried by the Motoyasu bridge into the main area. The main focal element is the Memorial Cenotaph, over which a saddle-shaped structure stands about 8 feet tall, lined up perfectly to see the A-Bomb dome through it when looking north. The cenotaph itself is the casket beneath which holds a tome carrying the names of the dead. Directly between the cenotaph and the dome is the Peace Flame, a low-lying concrete structure with two horn-shaped struts rising out of the water and an ever-lit flame burning in the middle. The flame as added in 1964 and is a symbol of everlasting peace, but also a constant warning; it will remain lit until there are no longer any nuclear weapons and the world becomes free of the threat of nuclear war. The flame and the cenotaph are linked by the Pond of Peace, a rectangular expanse of water that surrounds both structures.
South of the pond is a large open area which has been for many years the venue for the Peace Memorial Ceremony, which is held every year on 5 August. It is also the venue for various other peace-related rallies throughout the year.
My next stop would be just east of the cenotaph; the Hall of Remembrance is a newer but separate part of the Peace Memorial Museum, which I would get to shortly, but the newer structure is a good place to start. Dug into the earth like a cylindrical bunker, the top of the structure pokes out with a monument on top. This is a chunky glass base on top of which a fragment of a circle has been added, to subtly give the sense of a clock permanently set at 8.15, the time at which the bomb struck.
When you enter the building, a spiralling pathway takes you into the room below the monument, where a wooden simile takes up the centre of the room. Then you look around, and see that the wall is made out of thousands of tiles of different shades which go to make up a panoramic reproduction of the area as it looked immediately after the bomb. Under the picture is a number of darkened lines, spanning the part of the picture representing a particular neighbourhood or prefecture, along with its name and the number of people who had died from there. That was the entire exhibit, and it didn't need to be anything else. There was no shortage of people sat down on the small stools under each of the pillars as they took in the enormity of what they were looking at. I myself spent a while trying to control the lump in my throat. It's impossible to explain fully the feeling inside that building without actually being there.
Once outside, I decided to head to the main museum, a long, white structure held a storey in the air by stilts. Entering at the east side, the tickets cost a measly 50 yen - about 25p, and allowed full access to everything. The museum consisted of a continual history of Japan, the war, the buildup to the bomb, and the nuclear-related events that have happened in the world since, interspersed with models of the city, a reconstruction of the A-Bomb dome, and a very jolting but necessary section where the scene of devastation after the bomb is reproduced, complete with warped buildings and girders and children with their skin melting off their bodies. As you reach the end, a media section shows interactive stories of some of the survivors and those not so lucky, and a reel of footage of the devastation. All of this was presented in a number of languages, including English.
It was impossible to emerge into the fresh air of the afternoon with the same feelings and opinions of those I went in with. What was written on the walls of the exhibits was a fraction of the actual devastation, death, pain and suffering by those who went through it, but it was more than enough to be burned into my mind. That's not to say it wasn't a worthwhile experience, it most certainly was. I would recommend the museum and peace park in general as one of the must-see places in Japan. Just don't expect to come out of there with dry eyes.
Leaving the park, I headed back towards where I had entered the park in a trance, only waking from it as the heavens opened. I sheltered with a young woman and her happy, carefree children under the lift entrance to the Hall of Remembrance and smiled weakly to them when they greeted me. Not feeling quite up to heading anywhere else in Hiroshima, I wandered in the general direction of the Hondōri shopping arcade once more, and feeling the pangs of hunger (mixed with not wanting to take any chances with unknown styles of food just yet) I popped into a Subway and had a BLT and some fries and a Pepsi. (I was finding it liberating to look for foods with high fat content!) All the fashionable young twentysomethings were in the cramped first floor sit-down area, and it struck me that they had moved on with their culture, not allowing themselves to be dragged down into a western-style maudlin over their circumstances. Even the mural on the wall hinted at an acceptance, a panoramic scene of the Brooklyn Bridge in mid 20th century New York.
Once back at the shopping centre, I happened upon a chemist, and with a rather embarrassed look on my face and some economical hand movements, I was able to explain to the lady behind the counter my troubles. She was able to give me a box of tablets, which if I took a couple every few hours would allow me to get on with my holiday. I even got a free cup of lukewarm water to swallow the first batch with. The packet even had a figure of a backpacker with a relieved expression on his face giving a victory salute, so I wasn't going to argue. I would later discover that one batch was all I would need, full stop.
By this point I thought I was pushing my luck a bit, flu and toilet-wise, so headed through various strange and wonderful plaza's until I came back to the main street where I could catch a lift on the trams. It was only 5pm, but that was enough for one day. I had experienced the most important parts of the city, and tomorrow would involve much more exertion, perhaps even the climbing of a mountain, so I needed to be at my best.